Alfama District skyline with Sao Jorge Castle, Lisbon, Portugal

Experience the Passion and Kitsch of Eurovision Week in its Host City

As Turin, Italy gears up for Grand Final night of the world’s biggest song competition, let’s go back a few years to 2018, when it was hosted in another historic European capital.

Lisbon’s Baixa district is all very business as usual. Except for a few billboards and flags beckoning ‘All Aboard,’ you might not realize the Eurovision Song Contest is in town. Yet, our barista at Mantegaria, a small bakery serving up fresh pasteis de nata or Portuguese egg tarts, beams with pride at Portugal’s first victory after 49 attempts.

Eurovision holds a special significance in Portugal. In 1974, the year ABBA’s Waterloo soared to victory, Portugal’s song E depois do adeus played an integral part in overthrowing the Estado Novo dictatorship, as one of two signals to coup leaders to begin the Carnation Revolution, which ended Salazar’s rule.

In local lore, the centre of that night was Lisbon’s grandest square, Praça do Comércio. Transformed for the week into ‘Eurovision Village,’ it will come alive each night with free nightly concerts from Eurovision stars past and present. On Saturday night, the square will be packed with fans braving Lisbon’s oceanic chill to watch the live final on giant screens. Joining them will be over 180 million people across Europe, Australia, and the world that have fallen under the contest’s spell.

Commerce Square (Praca do Comercio) with King Jose I statue in Lisbon, Portugal
King Jose I statue in Commerce Square, the centre of Eurovision Village 2018

What Is the Eurovision Song Contest?

Starting in 1956 as a radio contest between seven countries, Eurovision is today the most-watched non-sporting show in the world. Unlike the talent shows that dominate commercial airwaves, an original song is a must, and while Eurovision’s reputation and reach have grown exponentially in the last decade, the competition is still something of an enigma to North Americans. Even those who’ve gone down the Eurovision rabbit hole are often as much fascinated by the kitsch and camp of it all as the musicianship of any of the 40 odd competitors. Doing nothing to change that is comedy star Will Ferrell, who somewhere among the fans in Lisbon, is putting the final touches on the script for an upcoming Netflix comedy, Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga.

Sharing the Love: All Aboard!

Two years before Ferrell unleashed Ja Ja Ding Dong upon the world, the action itself takes place at Lisbon’s Altice Arena, where we arrive on Tuesday night, clutching coveted tickets for the first of two semi-finals. Imagine for a moment what stepping into that arena feels like to someone who on a tiny, fuzzy TV screen in 1999, watched Israel’s reigning champion Dana International pass the crystal microphone to Sweden’s Charlotte Nilsson.

“Eurovision? Wait, didn’t ABBA win this?” Nilsson’s song even sounded like ABBA! And so, for young Christian began a love affair that tonight culminates in an arena packed with 20,000 fans, each with their own ‘first year,’ first magical moment, or first song that hooked them for life.

Fans make their way to Altice Arena.

As the stage manager barks last-minute instructions, a richly international sold-out crowd—ourselves part of tonight’s show—hums with flag-waving anticipation. This year’s favourite, Israel is well represented. A group of fervent fans jumps up and down with undisguised love for their nation, its artist, Netta, and her irresistible number, Toy. But the energy hits a fever pitch when Eleni Foureira closes the show for Cyprus with her showstopper Fuego. Anyone in the arena that night leaves with the strong impression they’ve just seen the top two.

But there’s much more to come…

Sightseeing the City of Hills

Until the next 18 songs hit the stage, we want to enjoy all the Portuguese capital has to offer. A walking tour offers us handy advice on tourist traps to dodge, plus a tour through the medieval Alfama district with a shot of ginja liqueur from a local grandmother who’s fiercely managed to resist the forces of gentrification. We’re joined for lunch by an American traveller both perplexed and intrigued by this ‘Eurovision’ that’s taken over the main square. By the end of lunch, he’s picked up a last-minute ticket to join us at the second semi-final to see what all the fuss is about.

Not sure what to do in Lisbon between shows? Check out how we spent Four Perfect Days in Lisbon here.

Egg tarts at Pastels de Belem (Pastel de Nata), Lisbon, Portugal
Egg tarts at Pastels de Belem

An Insider’s Glimpse of Eurovision

We take our seats for semi-final 2, but unlike our Tuesday tickets, tonight has a distinct ‘behind the scenes’ vibe. Technically, we’re seeing a rehearsal show, judged by each country’s juries and weighted evenly against the public’s vote on a live show the following evening. In other words, the Euro-wizard has invited us behind the curtain.

Sweden’s Benjamin Ingrosso serves up a tightly choreographed 80s-inspired number, while Norway’s Alexander Rybak, violin in hand, hopes for his second win. Ukraine’s Mélovin takes vampiric inspiration behind a flaming piano because… it’s Eurovision and that’s just the vibe. The stage is then cleared for tomorrow’s live event, which we’ll be watching at a local bar. While the jury show doesn’t quite have the same anticipation as its live counterpart, the performances are the same, tickets are usually easier to pick up, and it offers a great way to see the inner workings of Eurovision.

When Eurovision Takes Over the Town

While Eurovision hasn’t exactly stopped Lisbon in its tram tracks, there’s always a party happening somewhere in the city, hosted by fan clubs or delegations from across Europe. The official ‘EuroClub’ is restricted to accredited delegations and press, but tonight, fans converge on a local club for an all-nighter of dance and drag. From 11pm until dawn, it’s nonstop Eurovision hits, deep cuts, forgotten failures, classic choreography rehearsed to perfection, and a crowd of several hundred superfans from every country singing along. Forget divides in age or language. From ABBA to Conchita Wurst, tonight, the only languages that matter are music and memories.

Belem Tower in Lisbon, Portugal
Attractions like Lisbon Belem Tower can get busy during Eurovision

All About the Big Night

Everything comes down to Saturday’s Grand Final, watched by over 180 million people, almost double the audience for America’s Superbowl. Making enough noise to be heard over those 180 million people is an Austria supporter sitting next to us at the bar. As exciting as the final is for everyone, I can’t help but crave some of whatever he’s having, screaming with joy into a cell phone as Austria snatches up jury votes to take an early lead. His friends are supporting Sweden, who stand just 18 points behind. At this point, we’ve given up trying to hear the commentators and are having much more fun watching the crowd, as hugs are exchanged and multi-lingual cheers fly around the bar.

But it’s not over yet. Eurovision has had over 60 years to practice keeping its audience in suspense after all! With all the jury points awarded, the public’s vote is still to come. True to what we saw on Tuesday, Israel and Cyprus have swooped into first and second place, while Austria claims a respectable third. All 26 finalists have sailed into Eurovision history, and speculation flies about which of Israel’s cities will host the event next year (Tel Aviv eventually claims the honour), while we set out to explore more of Portugal, starting with historic the inland walled town of Evora.

Final Tips from a Eurovision Superfan

Christian Baines - Chris with wax figures of ABBA at the ABBA Museum, Stockholm, Sweden
Sweden’s first winner, ABBA, at Stockholm’s Pop House

Planning to stop by the Eurovision host city on your Europe vacation? Want to see what all the fuss is about or maybe the contest just happened to land while you were in town? Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Hotels block out rooms for delegations, and deals on accommodation are scarce. Friday and Saturday nights are the most in-demand, so consider booking mid-week if you just want a taste and don’t mind watching the final from elsewhere.
  • Ticket sale dates and prices vary widely from year to year. This year’s tickets did not go on sale until just a few weeks before the event. Subscribe to a Eurovision newsletter to ensure you don’t miss out and don’t be afraid to book the jury or rehearsal shows. You’ll still see all the same acts and get a behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of Eurovision.
  • If you’re not stuck on staying in the host city proper, check rail connections to nearby cities for cheaper accommodation. Just be sure to give yourself enough time to make your train from the venue… unless you want to join a local all-night party, of course!
  • In popular tourist cities like Lisbon, long queues at major attractions will be common, so look into passes or alternative ticket offices to skip them.
  • Don’t cancel your trip just because you failed to get a Eurovision ticket. You’ll also be able to access many of the free concerts and parties that happen throughout the week and soak up the irresistible energy of the world’s biggest music festival.
  • For a Eurovision fix at any time of year, visit two towns with a serious love of Eurovision! Stockholm’s Pop House, which also houses the ABBA Museum, begins with a display celebrating Sweden and other countries’ contributions to Eurovision, including the dress worn by 1988 winner, Celine Dion. Newly opened is the Eurovision Museum in Húsavík, the northern Icelandic fishing town that is the setting for much of Will Ferrell’s Eurovision movie.

Just don’t blame us if you can’t get Ja Ja Ding Dong out of your head for days.

Historic town of Husavik and its harbour at sunset, northern coast of Iceland
Husavik, an historic harbour town turned Eurovision destination, Iceland
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Christian Baines

Globetrotting Contributing Editor -
Christian’s first globetrotting adventure saw him get lost exploring the streets of Saigon. Following his nose to Asia’s best coffee, two lifelong addictions were born. A freelance writer and novelist, Christian’s travels have since taken him around his native Australia, Asia, Europe, and much of North America. His favourite trips have been through Japan, Spain, and Brazil, though with a love of off-beat, artsy cities, he’ll seize any opportunity to return to Paris, New York, or Berlin.

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